#AgencyFocus: Surviving disaster, a blank slate & the next step
by Carey Finn (@carey_finn) Once one of South Africa’s most-heralded agencies, Ireland/Davenport saw a dramatic decline in its fortunes starting in 2015, culminating in its suspension from the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) in July last year. The future of the agency looked unclear. However, founder and executive director, John Davenport, and his team took the opportunity to refocus and regain their footing in the industry, starting with rebranding as Collective ID in October 2017. Its comeback makes for a story of remarkable tenacity and grit in the face of once-assumed overwhelming odds.
2015 had marked the start of a sharp decline for Ireland/Davenport, which suffered the loss of several key accounts in rapid succession, including BMW, South African Tourism and Vodacom, with the cellular company pulling the plug on an estimated 40% of the agency’s total revenue. 2016 was not kinder, heralding first the departure of managing director Susan Napier in June and then that of founding partner Philip Ireland in October. And then there was the matter of the Telkom account pitch that led to the suspension in mid-2017.
“The agency did go through hard times,” says Sharon Bergmann, chief financial officer. “But we had to carry on, and it gave us the opportunity to get our shareholding correct. We were given a blank canvas to restart and recreate.”
Opportunity to rethink
Managing director Brenda Khumalo, who was promoted from the position of executive client services director in February this year, agrees that the difficulties offered an opportunity to rethink the agency’s way of operating, and restructure. “We saw both a need and a chance,” she says.
Executive creative director Qingqile “WingWing” Mdlulwa, who joined the team in July last year, explains that they were looking to create a less-hierarchical, more-inclusive type of agency structure. “We wanted to make sure every employee felt that they had a say in how the organisation is run and how things happen, and we saw it as an opportunity to go from having two names on the door to having everyone’s name on the door, as a collective with one vision,” he says.
Having increased its black ownership from 21.5% to 52.6% in April 2017, the agency’s appointment of Khumalo and Mdlulwa as managing partners in October that year saw it become both majority-black-owned and -managed, and achieve a Level 1 BBBEE rating in line with its ongoing transformation strategy. This helped it take home the new MarkLives Agency Leaders’ Agency Diversity & Transformation Award for what peers saw as the most-significant contribution in this area for a Joburg-based agency.
“Clients responded positively”
The general reaction to the restructuring and rebranding has been good, say Khumalo and Mdlulwa, with curiosity and eagerness surrounding the ID comeback. “We were fortunate that our clients responded positively; they didn’t go running out of the door,” says Khumalo. “But it was a process for us to take them through the new vision of the company, with the new executives of the company.”
The agency’s clients have been key to the process, emphasises Davenport, highlighting Standard Bank in particular, whose personal and business banking account sits with Collective ID as lead agency. “Standard Bank [was] crucial to the rebuilding,” he says. Signing it on late last year with the new management team, the agency has driven its popular “What’s your next?” campaign. Other major clients include the Development Bank of Southern Africa, another win late in 2017; the Avis Budget Group; Isuzu; and the MAQ brand. Revenue growth for the 2017–2018 period is predicted to be around the 42% mark, up nearly 10% from the previous year.
A large part of the motivation behind the agency’s reemergence into the market, say Khumalo and Mdlulwa, was meeting the need for diversity and the relevance it engenders. Khumalo says that the narrative of being at the forefront of transformation has “sunk in”, and it’s something that Collective ID is working to achieve with a multipronged approach focused on improving lives. Part of this involves a CSI and training programme called Collectivity, which sees the agency sponsoring accelerated learning and other education efforts for a number of young black females, as well as a tertiary qualification for an aspirant black male graphic designer, the son of a security guard at the office premises.
Mentoring and incubating
Under the Collectivity banner, the agency also mentors students and runs an incubator programme, ID Labs, which provides young black-owned agencies with access to support including office space, infrastructure, training and clients, for a period of three years. Book of Swag, the agency currently in the programme, is about to graduate and go out on its own, and the search is on for the next group of creatives, says Khumalo.
Another focus area in Collective ID’s transformation efforts is improving gender diversity, with Khumalo describing it as the agency’s biggest passion. “For me, the transition is not fast enough,” she says. “If you don’t have that representation in agencies, how are you going to do work that resonates with the majority of the population?” She’s volunteered to sit on a gender quality council being set up by WPP, whose fold the agency falls into.
Mdlulwa agrees and emphasises the urgent need for female role models within the advertising and other industries. “It’s important for young women outside and inside the industry to see that there are women who leading, and leading very effectively,” he says.
Davenport believes that rectifying current imbalances in gender diversity requires giving women more opportunities.
“And equal pay,” adds Mdlulwa.
Other than paving the way for broader social transformation, the agency counts attracting new business among its goals for the coming year. “We’re putting it out there that we are open for business,” says Khumalo. “Our mandate is to continue moving forward, attracting great talent [along the way].” To this end, the agency appointed Tshepang Louw as new business director in June, and has set up a task team focused on new opportunities.
While Collective ID is looking to increase its base of clients who buy into diversity, transformation and representation, say Mdlulwa and Davenport, the agency is happy to remain medium in size and is not looking to become an industry giant. To expand its offerings, however, says Khumalo, the agency is in discussions with partners which will supply the digital backend component that’s thus far prevented it from calling its digital stable of offerings fully integrated.
The future, they all agree, is looking set to be exciting.
Carey Finn (@carey_finn) is a writer and editor with a decade and a half of industry experience, having covered everything from ethical sushi in Japan to the technicalities of roofing, agriculture, medical stuff and more. She’s also taught English and journalism, and dabbled in various other communications ventures along the way, including risk reporting. As a contributing writer to MarkLives.com, her new column “#AgencyFocus” is an ongoing weekly series updating the market on agency performance, including business performance, innovation, initiatives, the work, awards and people.
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